Authors: Neil S. Plakcy
Tags: #Mystery & Crime
“How’d you get in?”
“We traded keys a while ago.”
“You’re disturbing a crime scene,” the uniform said.
“I saw the crime scene, Officer,” I said. “It was out beyond the guard house, and there was lots of blood.”
“The dog’s got to eat,” Rick said. “Let him get the stuff.”
Rick sent the uniform back out to his car, and picked up the box for me, when it became evident that Rochester wasn’t budging unless I had his leash, and I couldn’t manage both dog and box.
The street was dark and silent. After six months in prison, I loved the freedom of coming and going as I pleased, and I relished the quiet and serenity I felt under the canopy of stars. But the sense of peace I’d always found in River Bend was gone now that violent death had paid a call.
Rick left the box just inside my gate and returned next door. I hurried the dog across to my house, opened my front door, and unhooked Rochester’s leash. He bounded ahead of me, his nose to the floor, sniffing every inch of my downstairs as I carried his stuff inside and piled it on my kitchen table.
The last time I’d been around dogs much was when I was in college, back when it seemed everyone wore flannel shirts and blue jeans and had little dogs named Trotsky. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with such a huge creature, but I figured he had to be hungry.
“You eat yet?” I asked, when Rochester came to sit on his haunches and stare at me. “Probably not. How much of this do you get?”
I peered at the bag, which was printed in both English and French. I established that he was indeed a “
chien de grande race
,” or large breed dog, and followed the instructions. I poured half a cup of the dry chunks into one metal bowl and filled the other from the tap. I put both down on the floor by the sliding glass doors that led out to my patio, and he attacked the food with gusto.
I stood and watched him for a minute. In the space of a few hours I’d seen my neighbor murdered and inherited custody of a seventy-pound dog with a voracious appetite. All in all, not a typical day. And I still had papers to grade. I didn’t have much appetite for dinner myself, so I opened my backpack and spread my work out on the kitchen table. With a big sigh, Rochester sprawled out at my feet, and while I alternated grading papers with worrying about Caroline and wondering what had happened to her, he slept.
I gave up on grading around nine o’clock, and went upstairs to my bedroom. When he moved into the townhouse, my dad had sold all the furniture I grew up with and bought everything new, including a queen-sized pillow-top mattress on top of an elevated sleigh bed. It’s pretty high, but like him, I’m tall and have long legs so it never bothered me. Rochester hopped his front paws up to the edge of the mattress but couldn’t seem to leverage his whole body up. That was fine with me.
“Your bed is downstairs,” I said. “This one’s mine.”
He looked at me. As I started pulling off my shirt, he went down to all fours again, and padded out of the room. “Good boy.”
Then I heard him running. He came hurtling back into the bedroom, and with a flying leap ended up on the bed, where he settled down and stared at me. “Did you sleep in your mother’s bed?”
He did not respond, but he kept his eyes on me. “Oh, well, it’s only for a day or two.” I stripped down to my shorts and got into bed, pushing him over to one side. “You can stay, but you’ve got to share.” He seemed to agree.
Lying there, thinking of Caroline, I remembered the only time I’d been in her townhouse before that night. I’d gotten the job at Eastern, and on my way home from teaching, I often stopped at my favorite spot in town, The Chocolate Ear café, for a raspberry mocha—a reward for reading and grading my students’ ungrammatical papers. The owner, a pastry chef from New York named Gail Dukowski, used the best quality beans, Guittard chocolate syrup, and home-made whipped cream, and despite my coffee snobbery I’d been seduced by the sweet drink. The fact that she was pretty and liked to flirt was a plus.
A lot had changed in Stewart’s Crossing during the years I’d been away. The feed store had been replaced by a real estate office, the local bank names had been painted over with national ones, and doctors had taken over several of the old Victorians. America’s three obsessions: property, money and health, all sandwiched together in a downtown area that still has one traffic light, though a steady stream of Land Rovers, BMWs, and Volvos are always circling, competing for the few available parking spaces.
One of the best changes was the opening of The Chocolate Ear. In the 1960s, the old stone building on Main Street was a hardware store where my father bought the odd nail or high-intensity flashlight, and then when it closed it sat derelict for a long time until Gail, who had grown up in neighboring Levittown, returned to Bucks County and opened the café. She painted the interior a pale yellow, which made the room seem sunny even in winter, and decorated the walls with vintage posters advertising chocolate products, many of them in French. The white wire tables and matching chairs seemed like they’d come direct from Paris, though they’d been padded with cushions more comfortable to American bottoms.
The café always smelled of something delicious—lemon tarts, strawberry shortcake, or hot chocolate topped with cinnamon. The glass-fronted case was filled with exquisitely decorated pastries—petit fours covered in white fondant with tiny sugar flowers, individual key lime tarts scalloped with whipped cream, fudge brownies studded with walnuts and chocolate chips. The signature cookie was a chocolate version of the elephant ear, a curly pastry with a rich cocoa flavor. An industrial-quality Italian coffee machine churned out mochas, lattes and cappuccinos, filling the room with the sound of drips and foams.
Usually I stayed at the café to savor my drink, but one Friday in late January there was a water leak in the kitchen, and the sound of the plumber banging away wasn’t conducive to grading. So I took my coffee back home, and as I stepped out of the Beemer, clutching the paper cup and a pile of student essays, Rochester came out of nowhere once again, this time trailing his leash behind him.
I saw him coming too late, and the coffee and the papers went flying in opposite directions. Caroline was very apologetic, helping me collect all the paper, and then she offered to make me a coffee to replace the one I’d lost. “I have a great espresso machine and I never get to use it,” she said. “Please?”
I didn’t want to face grading without my treat, so I agreed. “I’m so sorry he attacked you again,” she said, pushing the golden retriever in the door ahead of us. “I took today off to practice handling him. I’ve wanted a dog for ages, but it wasn’t until I moved out here that I had a place for one. He came from a rescue group—can you imagine someone wanting to give up a sweetheart like Rochester?”
I understood why someone might want to get rid of a gargantuan beast like him—what I couldn’t see was getting him in the first place. “Is that where you went to college?” I asked, as we walked into the kitchen. “Rochester?”
“No, he’s named after Rochester in
In that moment, I knew a lot about Caroline Kelly. Though full-figured, she had a pretty face, and she dressed well and knew how to use makeup and hairstyle to her advantage. The low-necked sweater she was wearing accentuated her cleavage, and I liked the way her jeans hung low on her hips. I figured she was educated, because she knew
, and successful, because townhouses in River Bend start around $300,000.
True to her word, she had a very fancy espresso machine. “I’ve got Kona beans in the freezer,” she said, opening the door and pulling them out. “I’ll just slip some in the grinder.”
I started to like Caroline even more. A woman who appreciated good coffee was a real find. My ex-wife, also known as “The Jewish American Princess of Darkness, Satan’s Favorite Squeeze,” only drank iced tea, heavily dosed with artificial sweeteners. She used to bitch about the smell of coffee in the house, saying it made her nauseous. I’d have to give up brewing my own each time she was pregnant.
Caroline’s kitchen was full of the latest and most high-end appliances, everything shiny stainless or bright primary colors. I noted her top-of-the-line Kitchen Aid stand mixer, a hanging tray of copper-bottomed pans, and a wooden block of German knives.
Caroline’s coffee offerings included a half dozen unopened bottles of syrup, from vanilla to orange to raspberry, and a couple of twist-top canisters of toppings. While she bustled around making the coffee, I looked around her house from the vantage point of her kitchen table. The kitchen was at the front of the house, with a big picture window that looked out on the street. The butcher block table matched the blond wood of the cabinets.
Her decorating was minimalist with a touch of Southeast Asia—a single bamboo screen, teak and bleached linen, with the occasional statue of a grinning monkey or a reflective Buddha. When I asked, she told me that she’d lived in Korea for a couple of years as a teenager, and it had formed her sense of style.
I could even see it in the way she dressed—very simply, with just a hint of Asian influence. She’d traded her usual sneakers for black Japanese sandals with white socks, and around her wrist she wore a thick gold bracelet she told me was made of Thai gold. “They call it a baht bracelet,” she said. “That’s the Thai money. A friend of my dad’s in the service had one, and he used to joke that if you were ever captured in the jungle you could break a link off to bribe the chief to let you go.”
I wondered if she’d seen that friend of her dad’s as the same kind of romantic hero as Rochester—like Michael Douglas in
Romancing the Stone
, or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. It would be hard for an average guy to match up to those role models—a desk job in Philadelphia or some Bucks County hamlet doesn’t lend itself to larger-than-life escapades. But maybe she’d like a guy with a criminal record—even if it was only for computer hacking. I filed that thought away for the future.
I heard the buzz of the coffee grinder, and then a percolating noise as the brown liquid dripped into the glass pot. Rochester came over and rested his big golden head on my leg, leaving behind a trail of drool and a fine coating of blonde hairs on my black jeans. He settled into a heap in the doorway that led back to the living room. Yet another reason to have a dog, I thought—to create an obstacle course in your own home.
As we drank our coffee, we traded bits and pieces of background. I mentioned my divorce and relocation, but left out the part about meeting Santiago Santos at a nondescript office building in Doylestown and showing him the ways I was becoming a solid citizen. I learned she had relocated from New York to take a job in finance with a bank in Philadelphia, an easy commute from the train station in Yardley, the next town downriver.
“There’s a guy I used to date who lives in New York, and I see him now and then, but it’s nothing serious,” she said. “But other than him, the guys I’ve met around here are total washouts. You know, sometimes I feel like behind my back someone has enrolled me in the Dork of the Month Club, and every few weeks, instead of books or CDs or baskets of fruit, I get some dufous standing at my door, wearing high-water pants, a pencil folder in his shirt pocket, and one of those ribbon things running around behind his head holding his glasses in place.”
I laughed. Of course a guy like that couldn’t match up to a man who wore a gold baht bracelet, knew how to shoot a semi-automatic weapon and how to perform first aid on a sucking chest wound. Could I? Or would I end up another on Caroline’s list of losers, the computer geek who was too dumb to avoid prison?
While we talked, Rochester remained sprawled on the white tile floor in the doorway, snoring softly. At one point his body began to twitch and he made some whimpering noises. “He’s probably chasing ducks in his dreams,” Caroline said. “There’s a dog park in Leighville, and I’ve taken him there a couple of times, but I spend the whole time making sure he doesn’t try to hump every other dog.”
The way she looked at him was so sweet and loving; I could tell she and the big golden had a strong bond, and I envied that a little. Some people like dogs, I figured, and some didn’t. I was one of the ones who didn’t. And I wasn’t willing to accept the chaos that a dog would bring into my life. I was still enjoying my solitude, the way I didn’t have to answer to anyone but Santiago Santos.
“I guess I should get home,” I said then. “I’ve got a stack of freshman comp essays to grade on ‘a food that has a personal meaning to me.’ I figure I’ll be reading a lot about pizza and burgers, while correcting dangling modifiers, unyoking fused sentences, and introducing my students to the concept of punctuation and its place in the grammatically correct sentence.”
Remembering Caroline, I felt a few long-ignored stirrings. Just my luck; I find a smart, pretty woman who’s single and maybe interested in me, and she gets killed before I can even think of making a move.
The next time I ran into Caroline it was at The Chocolate Ear, on a Saturday morning. The usual suspects were there—the people who always seemed to be hanging around the café when I stopped by. My childhood piano teacher, Edith Passis; Gail, the café owner; and her grandmother Irene.
I stepped up in line behind Caroline, noting the Oriental simplicity of her white blouse, black jacket, and black slacks. With her hair pulled up into a knot, she looked fresh and pretty, and I wondered again if she’d go out with me, if I asked, and if the parole would be a deal-killer.